Once Upon A Time... there was an extremely poor family in a village named Thul, near Alibagh. The family comprised of a drunkard for a father, a sickly mother, Lila, Hari, Bela, Kamal and their dog Pinto. Lila’s father, once a fisherman, had to sell off his boat to clear his debts.Though he still worked, most of his earnings went into supporting his addiction. Their mother had been chronically ill for so long that she was too weak to even get up from the bed. So, at thirteen and twelve, Lila and Hari were the main providers for their family. Bela and Kamal were mere kids.
Soon the government declared its intention of setting up a fertilizer plant in Thul. This did not bode well with majority of the villagers, who were mostly fishermen by occupation. They resisted the decision. When Hari got an opportunity to go to Mumbai as a part of protestors’ group, he promptly took it. Instead of staying back in his village and working for Biju - the wealthiest fisherman in Thul, he took a chance of going off to a city where not a single soul knew him. Once in the city of dreams, Hari finds work in a roadside food stall. While there, Hari also makes acquaintance with Mr.Panwallah, who teaches him everything about watches. In the meantime, Lila finds work with the DeSilvas, a rich family who owns the nearby bungalow and spends the summer there.
Soon a lot of things started to change in the lives of the young ones. When her mother’s health turns critical and has to be hospitalized, the DeSilvas help her in every way possible. Her alcoholic father comes to his senses and manages to sober up in order to take care of his ailing wife. Hari on the other hand, gathers up his savings and returns to the village after nine months of hard work to reunite with his family. He, together with Lila, plans to start up a small poultry farm and a watch repairing shop in Thul. Though Lila is cynical at first, she promptly realizes that there was a change coming soon and that they had to be prepared for it.
The story ends with a glimpse of their mother up and about, approaching a rock on the sea, with a group of women, to offer her prayers.
“The village by the Sea” by Anita Desai was my introduction to the much debated - Indian Writing in English [IWE]. Since then, each time I have picked up this book [Yes, I am one of those people who likes to read & re-read the same book over and over again] I have found something new to admire about it and over the last few years I have accumulated quite a few ‘points’ that I like about this book.
First, as a work of fiction it is not short of exquisite. The setting, the characters and the plot -- all fall together and fit beautifully. Be it Hari, a twelve year old or Jaggu, the food stall owner, everybody has a role to play and a lesson to teach. Be it the village of Thul or the big city of Mumbai, the vivid description of the places helps the reader to transport from one place to the other along with the characters in play. Personally, I found that there was something delicate in the author’s style of storytelling that grabbed my attention from the very beginning. She is skillful in depicting the world as it is; the characters are very true to life and she has managed to weave in the many facets of the society, politics and religion into a single work.
This book also imparts quite a few ‘messages’, the most prominent one being that of ‘change’. Change is inevitable in life and in society. All one can do to prosper is to adapt to it. When the government decided to set up a factory, the villagers resisted the change fearing the repercussions of it. But a twelve year old Hari learnt to adapt. His plans of a small poultry plan and a watch repair shop displayed his awareness of the changes that would soon take place in his small village and his willingness to adapt. Also, a thirteen year old Lila adapts to life throughout – whether be it taking up the responsibilities of her family or accepting the DeSilvas’ or finally agreeing with Hari’s plan – adapting according to the situation has always been Lila’s way of life.
Then there is that ever present message of ‘Hope’. You would think that kids like that - growing up in extreme poverty, with an alcoholic father and practically non-existing mother, with no supervision or guidance - would end up as a bad lot. But no, even in such a situation, it is possible for a ‘Hari’ to emerge and a ‘Lila’ to thrive. Even at the worst situations the young ones never lost hope. May be it was their innocence or maybe it’s just who they were. Help is always there for those who really need it – be it in form of a Jaggu or a Panwallah or the DeSilva family.
The reflection of the society, painted through the book is not a pretty one. Yet it stands true till date. The author has managed to capture the very essence of a village life in India. Extreme poverty, poor health care system and below average education rate is not really encouraging, rather it was pretty depressing. Child labour, represented through Hari while he worked at the restaurant in Mumbai alongside other boys, is another harsh truth of our country. The difference between Urban India and Rural India and between the rich and the poor is accentuated at various points. Also the attitude of the city people and the villagers, towards each other, felt so completely appalling even though somewhere in my heart I knew it was true.
Also, I have to admit that a huge amount of credit should go to the author for venturing towards a path few had trodden upon. This book was published in 1982 when ‘Indian Writing in English’ was not such a common thing. Sure, there had been the likes of R.K.Narayan who had already published a few of his works, and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ had already been out, but it was not as common as it is now. Very few people were actually aware and even those aware would criticize the authors for not writing in their native language. It was in the 80’s that few prominent authors gave the push that Indian English Literature needed – Anita Desai being one of them.
I feel that this book never got the recognition it deserves. The only notable recognition that this book has received is the ‘Guardian Children’s Fiction Award’. Though tagged as ‘Children’s Fiction’, there are a lot of serious topics handled that concerns not only our country but affects the whole world.
About the Author:
Anita Mazumdar Desai, born in 1937, is an Indian novelist. Her published works include adult novels, children's books and short stories like; Cry the Peacock, Clear Light of Day, In Custody, The Zigzag Way and The Artist of Disappearance. She is a member of the Advisory Board for English of the National Academy of Letters in Delhi and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. She has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times.